Eco-Saturday: Cook at home

Eating at home is a great way to save money and shrink your environmental footprint.
Eating at home is a great way to save money and shrink your environmental footprint.

As I was unwrapping a drive-through burger the other day on my way back to the office, I got to thinking about the ridiculous amount of trash generated by the fast-food industry.

We used to eat out all the time, but we’ve cut back lately, mostly for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment. But since this is Eco-Saturday, let’s look at the environmental impact of dinner out first:

* More packaging. Fast food comes with all manner of wrappers, cups, napkins, bags, packets, straws, lids and plastic silverware.
* More meat. I think we’re all well aware of the environmental issues created by factory farms. Most restaurant menus are heavy on meat and light on vegetarian options; one of the primary obstacles for most would-be vegetarians is the difficulty of finding suitable meals. Cooking at home solves this problem, and for me, it happens almost automatically: I learned to cook during a vegetarian phase in college, so that’s my default mode in the kitchen. We eat way less meat when I cook.
* More fuel. If I stay home, I’m not driving to a restaurant or idling in a drive-through lane.

Other advantages:

* Cost. I could have bought a station wagon with the money we’ve blown in restaurants over the past five years. Literally.
* Quiet. The older I get, the less patience I have with noise, crowds, loud music and slow service — and around here, you’re virtually guaranteed to encounter some or all of that wherever you go. No, thanks.
* Health. Restaurants are notorious for huge portion sizes packed with excess fat, sugar and salt. I lost 15 lbs. during the six weeks after I moved last year, when I was too broke to afford dinner out. The weight came right back when we started eating at restaurants again.

I’m not suggesting you should abandon restaurants entirely. But make them a treat, not your default mode. If you aren’t craving a specific food, and you don’t have your heart set on a particular restaurant, look in the pantry and see what you could make yourself. Below the fold is a basic grocery list to help you get started.

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Vegan Friday: Snack crackers

Vegan snack crackers use three cheap, readily available ingredients and can be thrown together in less than five minutes.
Vegan snack crackers use three cheap, readily available ingredients and can be thrown together in less than five minutes.

Fall has settled over us, and the lumberyard has started swapping flats of annuals for boxes of Christmas lights, which means the holidays are approaching — and with them, the usual boatload of potlucks and parties. You can find plenty of easy vegetarian recipes suitable for sharing, but most of them involve cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise or all of the above, and finding acceptable vegan substitutes for these ingredients can be a daunting prospect at 11:30 p.m., when you suddenly remember you were supposed to bring something for tomorrow’s office party.

Here’s a vegan version of an old standby that’s cheap, quick and always goes over well. The original is made with ranch dip mix, but this variation tastes just as good and doesn’t contain powdered buttermilk.

Vegan Snack Crackers

1 bag oyster crackers
1/4 c. margarine
1 packet Italian dressing mix
Big ziplock bag

Put the crackers in the bag. Melt the margarine in the microwave. Stir in dressing mix. Pour mixture over crackers. Seal bag. Shake until crackers are well-coated.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can add a little dried dill weed to the mix or put in a few shakes of red or green chile powder to give the crackers an extra kick, but they’ll be fine if you don’t.

Protip: If the bag doesn’t seal quite as well as you might have hoped, and you discover this fact after you turn it upside-down to coat the crackers, it’s nice to have a four-legged friend or two to help with cleanup. As noted the other day, Riggy was more than happy to assist.

Kitchen help

I was hungry when I got home tonight, so I decided to make myself some seasoned oyster crackers. I didn’t get the bag sealed properly, though, so when I turned it upside-down to make sure the crackers were coated evenly with the margarine-seasoning mixture, it popped open, and at least a third of a bag of greasy, Italian-dressing-mix-coated crackers fell all over the floor.

This is just one of many reasons I insist on owning a rat terrier at all times. Without canine assistance, this could have been a real pain to clean up. Dog spit is much easier to scrub off the floor than margarine, and since Riggy couldn’t see where the crackers were, he had to rely entirely on his nose — which meant every square inch of tile that smelled like food got a thorough licking. (Yes, I’m the kind of a-hole who takes advantage of my dog’s disability to get him to pre-clean the floor for me. Trust me: He doesn’t care. He got a third of a bag of oyster crackers out of the deal.)

Reminds me of somebody I used to know.
Reminds me of somebody I used to know.
"Mom! He's eating all the treats! Make him share!"
“Mom! He’s eating all the treats! Make him share!”
"Oh. I can just take some if I want? OK."
“Oh. I can just take some if I want? OK.”

Walter and Songdog still haven’t figured out that Riggy can’t see them, so both of them were veeeeeery hesitant about eating the crackers off the floor once Riggy came scrambling in to get them. Walter finally worked up his nerve, but as soon as Riggy came in, Song backed off and waited until he was all done to eat one he’d missed under the edge of the stove.

Riggy didn’t even growl at anybody; the other animals just deferred to him. I’m not sure what they think an 18-lb. rat terrier with no eyes is going to do if they try to make him share his crackers, but I think it’s pretty clear who runs this pack.

In related news, the dog wasn’t the only one who thought the crackers tasted good, so they’ll be a Vegan Friday offering in the near future.


I. Am. Exhausted.

What a weekend. I wrapped up another revision of the novel (which I now refer to as The Project That Will Not Die) late Saturday night, spent a big chunk of Sunday working on a preservation project, tweaked the novel a bit more Sunday night, caught up with an old friend in Makanda and picked up xylitol for the last step in my cider project today, and finished transcribing the last interview for Zaphod’s dissertation tonight.

I kind of want to finish that last step in the cider project now, but I think I’ll settle for watching the first Weeping Angels episode of Doctor Who with Ron, who is not a Whovian but has decided “Blink” sounds interesting enough to warrant his attention.

Hope you had a good weekend, wherever you are.


All is right in my world.

I spent today helping with a Friends of the Mother Road project at Henry’s Ra66it Ranch on Route 66 in Staunton, Ill. I forgot to take pictures, but we spent most of the afternoon pulling and chopping weeds from around the historic signs and vehicles — including Bob Waldmire‘s old VW Type 3 Squareback — and then met at Weezy’s in Hamel for an early dinner and a discussion about possible future projects.

I came home sunburned, sore and scratched-up, with bug bites on my arms, cockleburs in my hair, and an alarming quantity of goldenrod pollen in my sinuses.

If you know me very well, you know this means I feel better tonight than I have in ages.

I’m not myself when I’m not in the middle of planning, funding or executing a preservation project. This one wasn’t terribly flashy or fancy, but I had a good time getting tired and sweaty and dirty with old friends, which I hadn’t done since our sign-painting project at the Boots Motel over Labor Day weekend in 2012.

I should know better than to go so long between Route 66 preservation projects. I’m happiest when I’m helping the road I love, and I get out of sorts when I go too long without that satisfaction.

I worked on my road today. All is right in my world.


Eco-Saturday: Insulate your pipes

Here’s a quick, easy project to cut your energy and water bills: Insulate your hot-water pipes.

You can measure first and do the project all at once, or you can sneak up on it a little at a time. If your house has a basement, the latter approach is easy enough, but if you have a crawlspace that makes it difficult to access your pipes, I’d recommend getting organized and doing the whole thing in one shot.

Because I am lazy and my basement doesn’t get that cold, I kind of halfassed this project, but if your pipes are exposed to truly extreme temperatures, you’ll want to take an extra step, which I’ll explain in a minute.

(the lazy way)
Foam pipe insulation tubes in the appropriate size to fit your pipes
Tape measure

(the right way)
All of the above, plus rubber pipe tape

This project is ridiculously easy if you have an unfinished basement.

Use your finger to open up the slit so you can install the insulation around the pipe.
Use your finger to open up the slit so you can install the insulation around the pipe.

1. Stick your finger into the slit in one of the insulation tubes. Run your finger all the way down the slit to split open the tube.

Slip the insulation over the pipe. That's pretty much all there is to it.
Slip the insulation over the pipe. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

2. Slip the tube over a pipe.

If you come to a T...
If you come to a T…
… just notch the insulation to fit around it ...
… just notch the insulation to fit around it …
… like this. You can seal the seams with rubber tape later if you want.
… like this. You can seal the seams with rubber tape later if you want.

3. Cut sections of insulation to fit as needed. If you come to a T, work around it by cutting a notch the width of the pipe, about a third of the way around the tube, to make room. (Alternately, you can buy T-fitting insulators, but I didn’t have any handy, so I just did it the Red Fork way.)

If you want to maximize the effectiveness of your insulation, come back and seal the seams with rubber pipe tape. Personally, I’m taking the “Meh. Better than nothing” approach to my basement insulation projects, but my basement doesn’t get terribly cold, either. If it did, I’d pay a lot more attention to the details. (Of course, if I’d bothered to install my fiberglass insulation properly, I wouldn’t need to insulate most of these pipes at all, but as we’ve discussed before, I like to have my plumbing and wiring as visible and accessible as possible in case something gets screwed up.)

This project helps keep the water in the lines at the proper temperature, so the water heater doesn’t have to work quite as hard to keep up, and you don’t have to run the water as long before it gets warm. It also lowers the odds of a pipe freezing and bursting during a cold snap.

You can buy about 12 linear feet of pipe insulation for $3 at the hardware store. If you have a big house with a lot of exposed pipes in the basement, and you don’t have the time or money to do the whole project at once, you can start sneaking up on it now — just buy a couple of packs of insulation every time you go to the hardware store — and you should have it well in hand by the time winter really starts to set in.



Vegan Friday: Salsa verde

Put all this stuff in a food processor. Hit the "on" button. Ta-da!
Put all this stuff in a food processor. Hit the “on” button. Ta-da!

Last week, I showed you how to make a giant batch of regular salsa for canning. This week, we’ll make a small batch of salsa verde — in English, that’s “green sauce” — to eat fresh.

Salsa verde is pretty much a staple in New Mexico, where green chile is king. Here’s a quick version you can throw together in minutes to serve over burritos, tacos, tamales or whatever else makes you happy. I suppose you could make a big batch and can it, but it’s so quick and easy and tastes so fresh and light that you might as well make it to order. It will keep for several days in the fridge. Here is what you’ll need:

5-6 tomatillos, halved
Small white onion, quartered
2-3 roasted green chiles (I buy a bushel at a time in New Mexico, roast them under the broiler and freeze them)
Handful of cilantro
Juice from one lime

Throw everything in the food processor and whirl it around until it turns into a bright green sauce.

You could buy canned salsa verde, but why settle for prefabbed when you can make it fresh in under five minutes?

I forgot to take a picture of the finished product before I ate all of it, so if you want to see what it looks like, you’ll have to make your own.


Story time

I have, like, a thousand things I need to be doing right now that do not involve dinking around on the Internet, so obviously this is the optimal time to tell a story.

My best friend in high school was a quiet, unassuming Muslim girl who made good grades; said “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” at appropriate times; and basically did whatever she wanted, because adults always assumed that whatever Saadia was doing at any given moment was precisely what Saadia was supposed to be doing at that moment.

Saadia and I were pretty good kids, but by November of our senior year, we figured we had some comp time coming for all the extra hours we’d put in writing papers for honors classes and doing extracurricular activities while the cool kids were out getting drunk and pregnant and stuff, so we started cutting class and going out for coffee whenever we could think up an excuse. We always took the backroads to the coffeehouse, and if we hit a pothole too hard on the way, the glovebox in my 1985 Nissan Pulsar would pop open, and a box of Dramamine would fly out and land in Saadia’s lap. Which in no way should be construed as a reflection on my driving skills. But I digress.

This story isn’t about Dramamine or our senior year or the many ways one can traverse Southern Illinois on county roads to avoid being busted for truancy. It’s about our sophomore year, when we hadn’t yet figured out we could get away with cutting class, so we settled for blasting the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack on my parents’ stereo and making outrageously inappropriate sexual innuendoes about Michael Crawford while we did our homework. As one does.

We had biology together that year, and let me tell you: We were amazing at dissecting things. And by “amazing,” I mean we sucked. Which may or may not have been* my fault, because the day we dissected a shark, I inadvertently disconnected every vein and artery in its body with one ill-advised swipe of the scalpel.


We obviously performed very well on the practical exam for that unit.

We squeaked through the next unit by the skin of our teeth, and by the time we got to the final project in the cutting-up-dead-animals series — a fetal pig — I was starting to worry. I was on a field trip the day our irascible but hilarious biology teacher handed out the pigs, but when I returned, Saadia knew everything there was to know about porcine anatomy.

I later learned the following exchange had occurred in my absence:

COLLINS: (Puts pig in front of Saadia)
SAADIA: (Stares at pig)
COLLINS: What’s the matter with you?
SAADIA: That’s a pig.
SAADIA: I’m Muslim.
SAADIA: That’s a pig. I can’t touch it.
COLLINS: Your brother touched one. He didn’t have any problem with it.
SAADIA: (Shrugs) Yeah, well, he’s probably going to hell.**

So Collins ended up dissecting the pig for Saadia and showing her what all the parts were, which she then showed me.

And that, kids, is the story of how Saadia and Emily passed sophomore biology.


**Last I knew, Saadia’s brother was a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai. In retrospect, I probably should have been more careful with that shark.

Lots of projects

As we wind down our weekend (our days off are Sunday and Monday), I’m pretty happy with our accomplishments.

Ron worked late Saturday, so I made breakfast while he slept in, and then we went out searching for Gone Girl filming locations for an article he’s working on. We followed that with a trip to the hardware store to pick up materials for a small project I needed to do: The exercise bike we bought last weekend is great, but it didn’t have a shelf or ledge or anything for my iPad, which meant I couldn’t watch Netflix while working out — kind of a big deal, since I rely on a humanoid alien in tweed and a bowtie to keep me motivated.

I wouldn’t exactly call this an elegant solution, but it works, anyway:

Red Fork engineering.
Red Fork engineering.
Matt Smith is an excellent personal trainer. A 45-minute ride goes by much faster while you're watching the Doctor save the universe again.
Matt Smith is an excellent personal trainer. A 45-minute ride goes by much faster while you’re watching the Doctor save the universe again.

I stayed up late last night to add a couple more short chapters to my novel. It’s still not quite where I want it, but it’s inching closer. Which is good, because I have ideas for two others that are much more plot-heavy, and I’d really like to get this one done and either shopped or Kindled and off my plate so I can start the next.

We slept in again this morning, took the dogs to the park, and headed to Giant City to shoot some more Gone Girl sites. We spent a few minutes on the Makanda Boardwalk, made a pit stop at Lipe’s Orchard for sweet potatoes and chrysanthemums, and had dinner at Quatro’s before heading home, where I insulated a few pipes in the basement. Not the most productive weekend ever, but not bad.